Category Archives: Gaming

On… Treasure Island Dizzy

Some twenty-six years ago I went to the local newsagents and picked up a game that would change my life. That newsagents was down the road, and that game was Treasure Island Dizzy.

Treasure_Island_Dizzy_1

If you had anything to do with UK 8-bit home computer scene you will be aware of Dizzy: he was an anthropomorphic egg with an penchant for somersaults and puzzle-solving. Treasure Island was the second game in the series, released to an unsuspecting world in 1989. It’s hard to overemphasise how obsessed with Dizzy I became: something about the games, their cartoon-esque environments and characters spoke to me in a way that few other games at the time did. And it all started for me back with Treasure Island.

Looking back at the game now, it’s hard to understand quite why it struck such a chord. Some things – the Pyramids, the music of Mozart, Ghostbusters – have survived the test of time and remain as wondrous now as they were at their point of creation. Treasure Island Dizzy is not one of those things. Hailing from a time when the rules of game design were still struggling to creep forth from the primeval sludge of an 8-bit assembler, TID is full of things that just wouldn’t make it past a focus group today.

Take the end-game. After spending hours working your way through puzzles that vary from the obvious to the obscure, you get to the game’s last screen only to be told that to pass the final obstacle you need to collect thirty golden coins. The likelihood is that, by this point, you will have collected some but not all of these, mainly because a large number of them are hidden behind objects in the game world that look exactly the same as everything else. Without a guide to assist, the only way you’d ever find them all is by attempting to pick up every single bit of screen estate in the game. I’m struggling to think of any decent reason, save artificially extending the length of the game, why this was put in.

Couple that with the game’s single-life system (something which turns out to have been the result of a late-game bug that couldn’t be resolved in time for release) and you’ve got one of those recipes for frustration that old games often exhibited.

Having said that, there are some stand-out moments that stick in the mind. Finding the snorkel and realising that there’s a whole other island to explore is pretty cool, as is the underwater exploration.

The former residents of the island had created a complex treehouse village, lifts and randomly left snorkels lying around.
The former residents of the island had created a complex treehouse village, lifts and randomly left snorkels lying around.

I played the Commodore 64 version, which was ported by Ian Gray, and in similar style to a lot of budget releases from Codemasters it was a pretty poor conversion. I’m assuming it was a port of the Spectrum version (though it may have been the CPC), and aside from getting rid of some colour-clash and added some admittedly good music there isn’t much that takes advantage of the Commodore’s better graphics. To be fair, though, there is a charm to the art style. It’s not quite the ‘cartoon adventure’ that the marketing promised, but it’s pretty close given the restrictions of the hardware.

Playing the game today makes me sad, in the way that looking back at my wedding photos does. I want the game to make me happy, to make me remember the days when life was simpler. But it doesn’t. With the passing years has come too much recognition of how games should work and play, and Treasure Island Dizzy just hasn’t got enough of them. The insta-deaths, single life, frustration of the end-game, obscure puzzles, whilst all admittedly standards of the time just don’t hold up any more. *Sigh*.

Treasure Island Dizzy: it seemed a great game a quarter of a century ago, but just isn’t any more. And that makes me want to cry.

On… Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: Jack the Ripper DLC

WARNING: Spoilers for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate and the Jack the Ripper DLC below!

Ever wanted to play as a deranged serial killer who enjoys disembowelling and mutilating prostitutes? If you answered ‘yes’ then, firstly, it may be worth talking to a therapist and, secondly, the Jack the Ripper DLC for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate might just be the expansion you’ve been waiting for.

Yes, you too can play as a crazed serial killer!
Yes, you too can play as a crazed serial killer!

Taking place around twenty years after the events of the main game, Jack the Ripper sees the series’ best assassin since Ezio, Evie Frye, investigating the disappearance of her brother which is intertwined with the killing spree of the infamous Victorian serial killer. This being an Assassin’s Creed game, obviously this is all mingled in with the story of the Brotherhood of Assassins. Thankfully it doesn’t transpire that Jack is a Templar, but rather an Assassin who has gone a bit fruitloop. As ever, some liberties with the historical setting are taken, and in this ‘reality’ Jack has pretty much taken over the entirety of London’s underworld. He also wears a sack over his head for the whole campaign. It’s never made clear why. It’s not even a very nice sack.

The story takes place in the boroughs of Whitechapel and the City of London, with the rest of the environment from the main campaign blocked off. There are a couple of new settings, a snow-draped mansion and some prison hulks, the latter of which is a very interesting and well-designed locale. In terms of gameplay, there are around seven or so main missions plus a number of ‘associate activities’. Some of them, such as the Cargo Hijack, are pretty much identical to those in the base game, but others – such as Slow Carriage Escapes and the Ripper Letters – offer a bit of a spin on the standard themes. Unfortunately a few too many of them are reliant on the utterly awful ‘kidnapping’ mechanic that Syndicate introduced, making them frustrating and less than fun.

Crap like this still happens.
Crap like this still happens.

To be honest, there’s not an awful lot here that you can’t get from the main game. There is a new ‘fear’ mechanic whereby certain new weapons and QTE-based ‘brutal takedowns’ allow you to scare some enemies, which is useful for large-scale crowd control. It’s not great, though, and I couldn’t help feeling that it would have been better if they had implemented more items or moves that you could use at a distance. You never feel in control in the same way as you do, say, in the predator encounters in the Batman Arkham games. All too often an attempt to use a fear mechanic devolves into a simple scrap with enemies that are by now so underpowered compared to your character that they don’t put up much of a challenge even in large numbers. It also all feels a little… bolted on.

Towards the end-game of AC: Syndicate I felt that I was consistently battling against or exploiting the mechanics of the game, and Jack the Ripper just carries on that. The AI remains laughably dumb at times: you can murder a guard, the body of whom is stumbled upon by their colleagues who go into ‘alert mode’ for a bit. But then, when it’s over, they just go back to their pre-defined patterns, leaving their former friend’s corpse to rot on the floor. Whilst I appreciate that some of this is done for game-play purposes, having played Metal Gear Solid V with its much more ’emergent’ AI, this all seems a bit of a retrograde step.

Also, please, Ubisoft, please: whatever you do next for Assassin’s Creed, make sure you get rid of the ridiculous ‘you must be anonymous to continue’ stipulation that applies to so many of the mission objectives. Just because a guard spotted me five minutes ago does it really mean that I can’t now open this particular door merely because a cut-scene lies behind it?

Gameplay issues aside, what really urked me about Jack the Ripper is its subject matter and the way it deals with it. There are a couple of instances where the game mentions the brutality of the crimes committed, but for the most part we get the sensationalistic claptrap that typifies the lower-grade approaches to this segment of history. What makes it worse is that there are three portions of the DLC where you play as the Ripper. I’m sure this seemed like a good idea to the people who were writing the feature bullet-points, but let’s be clear about this: you play as a psychopath who – by the game’s own admission – gets his kicks by brutalising women in the most inhumane of manners. This wouldn’t matter quite so much if the Ripper playable segments dealt with this in a meaningful way, but the truth is that they’re just the same as the normal game except that mission objectives are displayed in a ‘crazy’ font with a weird screen-effect to accompany team. Honestly, it’s all a little distasteful and adds next to nothing to the game.

In its favour, the DLC is sizable and worth the money if you’re not too burnt out by the main Syndicate campaign. For me, though, it was just too much of the same, with the extra bits not really being substantial or well-implemented enough to make it worth the while.

On… The Order 1886

Oh, The Order 1886… You were doing so well, weren’t you? Graphics so lovely you could lose yourself in them, competent and enjoyable shooting mechanics, and a world that is relatively unique in the world of videogames. But… but… Alas, at the end of the day I just don’t think you’re a very good game.

Quite why it’s hard to put my finger on. I wish I could say it wasn’t you, it was me, but I think we both know that would be a lie. Part of the problem is that you seem so dead inside. Yes, you’re sumptuously beautiful outside but it’s all style and precious little substance. I walk through an ornately detailed room and find a mirror, only to discover that I have no reflection. I make my way through the back alleys of Victorian London and stumble upon a policeman and a lady having a conversation. They are flawlessly attired: every crease, every detail attests to the period setting. But walk between, stand right in the way of their conversation and they don’t even bat an eye-lid. They’re lifeless mannequins, displayed for the purposes of atmosphere, providing you don’t go too close.

The Order 1886
It looks lovely, doesn’t it?

Early on in The Order you find yourself engaged in a gunfight in a gentleman’s club in Mayfair. There are billiard tables that you can duck into cover behind, and – like everything else – they are exquisitely detailed. Whatever you do, though, don’t fire your gun at one and expect the balls to move even one iota. If you do then the whole illusion will be shattered like a wrecking ball through a hall of mirrors, and it becomes painfully obvious that it’s just a texture placed on a 3D object.

The Order suffers more than most from a problem I’ve touched upon before, whereby the more realistic something looks the more jarring it is when things don’t behave in the way you expect them to. It’s such a shame, as it’s obvious so much effort has gone into the way that the game looks. Unfortunately the effect you end up with is a bit like dressing a corpse: it might look alive, but it doesn’t take much to make you realise it isn’t.

Once you take away the glamour of the graphics, what you’re left with is a reasonably competent third-person cover-based shooter with a love of cutscenes and quick-time events. Ah, the cutscenes. I’m old enough to remember the mid-90s obsession with full-motion-video-based games when the CD-ROM first appeared as the game storage medium of choice. Sometimes The Order made me feel like I was playing a modern version of one of them. The pattern of many encounters, particularly near the start of the game, is: watch cutscene, walk slowly down corridor, press triangle to open door, watch cutscene, walk into room, watch cutscene, press triangle, watch cutscene, shoot something, watch cutscene. And so on.

Thankfully, the cutscenes are well-produced and serve to bolster a storyline that is intriguing if a trifle undercooked at times. Set in an alternate Victorian London, you play the role of Sir Galahad, one of Her Majesty’s Order of Royal Knights who, since the reign of King Arthur (yes, yes, I know) have protected England from half-breed werewolves, vampires and – presumably – other things that go bump in the night. It’s a well-developed world, refreshing in the way that pretty much all the detail about it is provided through the main game rather than by scores of codex entries as is often the case. I enjoyed the story itself, though was disappointed by the ending which seemed just to be begging a sequel to finish it off.  One of the game’s main twists was also painfully obvious from the get-go, and I did feel like shouting at the TV to tell Galahad not to be so stupid. That never works though, and you just end up with a sore throat and neighbours who think you’re crazy.

The Order 1886
Barry had waited a bit too long for the cutscene to finish.

Many people have criticised the length of the game, which I feel a tad unfair. It is  short: I think I probably finished it in about seven hours or so. However, had it stuck around any longer I think it would have outstayed its welcome. What hurts the game most in terms of its longevity is the replayability, or lack thereof. As a story-driven game where the main hook is discovering what happens next, and with no branching narrative path structure, once you’ve finished it there’s very little incentive to ever go back to it. The lack of multiplayer component also harms it in this regard.

As mentioned earlier, the game’s combat mechanics are serviceable, if nothing spectacular. They very much follow in the vein of Gears of War, whereby you spend the majority of your time crouching behind some conveniently-placed scenery and popping your head at now and again to shoot/be shot at. Some enemies will rush you, others lob grenades in your general direction. There’s not a great deal of variety, as you’re mainly fighting people in different colour uniforms, but it’s largely enjoyable nonetheless. The battles with werewolves are rare and disappointing, though. I seem to recall only about three or so encounters during the entirety of the game, and they all consisted of me being attacked by three werewolves who, one at a time, would charge towards me, give me chance to dodge, and then run away for a while before coming back. I’m no expert on fighting tactics, but it did strike me that they would have been better off if they’d all swarmed me at once and didn’t give me a chance to pick them off one at a time. Ah, well, I guess that’s why you never see a werewolf on Mastermind. Or do you? (No).

Oh, yes, there are also a couple of QTE battles against certain super-powerful werewolves. These are dull and it was never entirely clear how much involvement I was actually having in their outcome.

I know I’ve been excessively negative here, and it some ways that’s unfair. The Order isn’t a bad game, it just isn’t a very good game either. In fact, for several long stretches, it barely feels like a game at all. When it does let you play, and you’re in the midst of a decent gun-battle, it’s very enjoyable, but these patches don’t last very long and you’re soon back to walking at a glacial pace around environments that are aesthetically wonderful yet interactively barren.

On… Gears of War Ultimate Edition

Shamefully, I’d never played Gears of War when it was originally released back in 2007. Maybe it was the character models, perhaps the relatively short length of the single-player campaign, or it may just have been that I was a real man enough to appreciate it. Whatever the reason, I didn’t play it, so the Xbox One’s remastered version was my first time with Marcus Fenix and Dom, erm, whatever-his-second-name-is.

And did I enjoy it? Oh, yes.

Some real men, in a real game about a real war with real guns etc.
Some real men, in a real game about a real war with real guns etc.

One of the key things to know about GoW is that it’s far, far more than the sum of its parts. On the face of it, the game appears to be ‘just’ a third-person, cover-based shooter populated by men so burly they’d make Arnold Schwarzenegger blush if they stood next to him at a urinal. In fact, the game is a superbly crafted piece of entertainment that is immense fun to play and never outstays its welcome. I have to admit, I haven’t played the multiplayer component which – many would argue – is the actual meat of the thing. I can’t therefore comment on that, though by all accounts its fantastic fun.

What impressed me most about GoW was the level design and pacing. Though there are a few sections which descend a little bit too much into a routine of ‘go into room, shoot bad guys, proceed to next room’, by-and-large the flow of the game is extremely well thought-out. One moment you might be knee-deep in a fire-fight with the grotesque Locust, the next you’ll be nervously making your way through a deserted building, anxiously creeping around corners. The middle acts of the game in particular stand out for me as being a masterclass in how to build tension and design a linear path through a game. Note, incidentally, my use of the word ‘linear’ there: this isn’t a title for those who enjoy wandering off the beaten path. There are a few collectables to be found in hidden corners, but for the most part there’s no deviating from the route the game has in mind for you. This isn’t meant as a criticism; in many ways its rather refreshing to play something where you always know what you should do and where you should be heading, especially having been burned out over the last few years by massive open-world games. What makes GoW so good is the way that it all fits together, and that wouldn’t be possible were it not a linear experience.

Admittedly playing the campaign in single-player does expose the rather ropey companion AI, and as a result there are some fights that end up being much harder than they should be just because you’re having to compensate for the idiocy of the CPU. The last boss battle in particular must have taken me about twenty attempts. Okay, most of those were probably due to my utter incompetence at these kinds of games, but a good three of them at least were caused by the computer.

Never mind that, though: Gears of War is a fantastic game, every bit worthy of the ‘generation defining’ blurb splattered across the inlay of this remastered version. If you have never tried it because it just doesn’t seem like your kind of thing, do yourself a favour and give it a try, it may just surprise you.

On… The Legend of the Legend of Zelda

In another one of those moments which seem designed to make people of my generation feel old, The Legend of Zelda turns thirty this year. Thirty. Three zero. That’s a whole three decades worth of people getting Zelda and Link mixed up, during which we’ve seen some eight main console titles, eight handheld games, four remasters, a number of weird spin-offs (Link’s Crossbow Training, anyone?) and a handful of hideous CD-i games that Nintendo and the world in general would rather forget.

I was a little late getting into Zelda games, with the first one I ever owned being Link’s Awakening on the gloriously monochrome Game Boy. Since then I’ve owned and played pretty much every single main title. But – I hear you shout from across the blackened void of fibre-optics and tubing that constitutes the Internet – please, Gareth, tell us what are your favourites.

Okay, then. Have a list, I know the web likes those kind of things. In reverse order, my favourite five are…

5: Twilight Princess

Twilight Princess's Midna, looking awesome as always.
Twilight Princess’s Midna, looking awesome as always.

In many ways, Twilight Princess always seemed to me a reaction to Wind Waker. Thanks to all the whingeing about the art style of WW, the world of Twilight Princess is a thoroughly more sombre one. This is a Zelda for people accustomed to the ‘realism’ (in relative terms) of the fantasy worlds presented in the likes of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Link is now most definitely an adult, and the world around him is one where forgotten ghosts shiver in abandoned homes. On paper, TP should be the perfect Zelda game: there’s a huge overworld, tons of items, a heap of dungeons. In reality, alas, it isn’t. Why it isn’t is rather a hard question to answer. It seems utterly tripe to say it, but what TP seems to lack is a bit of magic.

Compared to Wind Waker or Ocarina of TimeTP seems like Nintendo playing it a little safe and adding things for the sake of adding them. Yes, there’s a big overworld, but it’s empty. Yes, there are loads of items, but most of them are ones you’ve seen before. Yes, there are a lot of dungeons but, frankly, to me it was a game that outstayed its welcome. By the time I had got to the end I was wishing it had finished two dungeons ago.

All of which sounds horribly negative when, really, TP is a brilliant game. Sadly it’s like a Booker prizewinner in a family of Nobel literature laureates: in any other context they would be stellar, but in such illustrious company they don’t shine quite as bright.

Obviously I’m still getting the HD remaster, though.

4: Link’s Awakening

Link in a shop run by a crocodile. Really, this should have been a sign that not everything was tickety-boo.
Link in a shop run by a crocodile. Really, this should have been a sign that not everything was tickety-boo.

Aside from a few brief minutes of A Link to the Past on a friend’s SNES, Link’s Awakening was the first Zelda game I ever played. The Game Boy typically played host to ‘side stories’, with the likes of Super Mario Land where the intrepid Italian plumber went around shooting aquatic life in a submarine. The titles were usually good, but they always felt a little ‘cut-down’. LA was different. Whilst the story is most definitely out on the fringes (it follows on from ALttP and follows a ship-wrecked Link exploring a strange island away from Hyrule), the game didn’t feel as if it had been compromised to fit the handheld. There was a huge (well, for the time) overworld, eight main dungeons and a number of side-quests. In short, everything you’d nowadays expect from a Zelda title.

The title is a joy to play, making the most of its host console’s humble graphic and sound capabilities. I must have finished it at least ten times, if not more, and I never got tired of it. It’s a testament to the skill with which it was designed that playing today, over twenty years since its original release, it doesn’t feel particularly dated. Okay, the cut-scenes seem basic and in comparison to modern titles it may seem a little small, but overall it’s as excellent a game today as it was back then.

3: The Wind Waker

All aboard the cartoon ship.
All aboard the cartoon ship.

Be it the original GameCube version or the remastered Wii U one, The Wind Waker looks glorious. As a child of the 1980s my initial gaming experiences were filled with those titles from the likes of Codemasters that promised ‘cartoon adventures’, though they could never deliver given the limitations of the technology of the time. TWW is that dream made real. Bright, colourful, this presents a world that seems an endless joy to inhabit. Which is a bit odd, really, as Great Ocean we traverse in TWW is essentially the post-apocalyptic remnants of Hyrule, buried beneath the sea after a time when evil rose and the hero did not come to save the day.

The game is not without its faults. Most notably, there are some obvious places where content is just missing, presumably the results of a truncated development time. The end-game hunt for treasure maps also wears thin a lot sooner than it actually ends. These are minor gripes, though, in a game that offers such a fun experience.

When it was released, there was a lot of anger at Nintendo for heading down the cartoon route. I never subscribed to this point-of-view, but I hope that those who did can, in retrospect, see that it has lent the game a timeless quality. The HD remaster in some ways seemed a bit superfluous, as the original version still looks good, even running on a flatscreen TV which are normally unkind to pre-HDMI consoles. The art has lived on, of course, with the now-monikered ‘Toon Link’ appearing in the Super Smash Bros. series, Hyrule Warriors and two follow-up DS titles, The Phantom Hourglass and The Spirit Tracks. But there is more to TWW than the art, the game itself is a typical Zelda masterclass of design. A particular stand-out moment for me was the discovery of the old Hyrulian castle, filled to begin with by stone statues which later come to terrifying life after you retrieve the Master Sword.

2. Skyward Sword

Skyward Sword's flying is great, if RSI-inducing.
Skyward Sword’s flying is great, if RSI-inducing.

Here’s the weird thing about Skyward Sword: it’s an utterly, utterly brilliant game but, my God, if I never have to play it again as long as I live I’ll be a happy man. It is, in many ways, one of the most astonishingly well-designed games I’ve ever had the fortune to play. The Lanayru Desert, for instance, with its localised time-travelling mechanic, is a work of sheer genius. The switch from a giant overworld with multiple dungeons to a game where you explore several main sections a number of times, uncovering other areas as you can new abilities, at first sounds like a retrograde step, but actually it works brilliantly. The story is one of the best in a Zelda title and, by acting as the earliest chapter in the series’ rather convoluted chronology, is able to shake off a number of tropes while paying homage to the lore in general.

The one big problem with SS is the controls. I don’t want to be one of those people who comes across as hating motion controls or bemoaning the decision Nintendo made. In fairness, the implementation of them is great (probably the best of any Wii game) and it adds a high level of immersion to the combat. That being said, whilst I must admit to never having been a medieval knight, I can imagine that swinging a sword around constantly for hours on end can tire your arm out a bit. This is the problem with SS.  I know, I know: I’ve read the safety leaflets and realise I shouldn’t be playing it for ages without a rest, but even just an hour or so was enough to make my joints ache. The final boss fight was a grueling experience, physically as much as anything else. It almost drove me to the point that I was ready to quit and walk away, cradling my poor arm. Only perseverance and sheer bloody mindedness saw me through. Following the post-credit sequence, I stuck the game back in the box and have never taken it out since. For all they add to the game, the motion controls take more away. The fact that the default interface has a good quarter of the screen taken up with a ghostly image of the Wii Remote seems to demonstrate a certain lack of faith by Nintendo in its inclusion, and the ability of others to grasp it.

It’s perhaps a testament to how great a game SS is that it still ranks so highly despite the difficulties I had with it. It could do with – and undoubtedly at some point will get – an HD remaster where they strip out the motion controls and replace them with something more traditional.

1: Ocarina of Time

Hyrule Field, its tranquility shattered only by Navi shouting 'Hey!' every twenty seconds.
Hyrule Field, its tranquility shattered only by Navi shouting ‘Hey!’ every twenty seconds.

What is there to be said about Ocarina that hasn’t been said a lot better many times before. Since its release on the N64 in 1998, the game has consistently appeared at the very top of ‘best game ever’ lists. Playing it today is still a wonderful experience, especially if you’re using the 3DS remaster which sharpens the graphics. In part, though, I think to understand how remarkable a game OoT is you need to have an awareness of the context of the industry it was released into. In 1998, 3D gaming was still in its infancy especially on console. Super Mario 64 had revolutionised console gaming along with the N64’s analogue stick, but there were still questions to be answered about other elements of the control system and how players interacted with an environment that had an extra dimension than they had grown up with.

When OoT cam along it introduced what-was-then-termed ‘Z-targeting’ (because of the controller button it mapped to) that allowed you to focus in on enemies and objects. It seems so obvious now, of course, but that’s the smugness hindsight leaves you with (“Oh, yes, obviously the wheel should be round.”). Then there’s the overworld. Once you’ve left the starting area, you’re thrown into Hyrule Field which stretches out as far as the draw distance can show. By modern open world standards it’s tiny and empty, but it still looks beautiful and there’s still a sense of wonder to be had as you gaze at Death Mountain with its sinister cloud halo, knowing that you can climb right to the very top of it.

There are so many things that OoT does right and better than its peers or, indeed, most of the games that have come since. The movement to the 3D world allowed Nintendo to experiment with puzzles that made you think in terms of height, width and depth. This wasn’t just a 2D game made to work in 3D, it was a game revelled in its extra space. Even the Water Temple – which is now infamous in the frustrations it caused dues to its layout – is a triumph of design.

If Wind Waker is a cartoon and Twilight Princess a high fantasy epic, then Ocarina is a fairy tale. The majority of Zelda games have typically followed the route of an everyman (or, rather, everykid) plucked from obscurity rising to become a great hero. OoT very much follows this line, but it does it better than its successors or predecessors. There’s just the right level of sparsity in its story-telling, just the right amount of charm and humour in its characters. Link is always a silent hero; in OoT this feeds into the feeling of the story as you are both a participant in the world and a separated observer. Like all fairy tales, the route is predefined, your destiny is written and you just need to follow it through to the end.

OoT presents a world that isn’t believable: characters stand around doing nothing other than waiting for your arrival; the towns and areas are obviously designed for you to play in rather than for people to live in. It doesn’t matter. Ocarina isn’t trying to give you reality, it’s trying to give you a myth, a story that you follow and a journey that you make. The transformation part-way through from a child to an adult is a masterstroke: in one movement it both provides new game mechanics and a new way to see the environments, whilst also giving you impetus to play on. As we move from childhood to adulthood, we slowly but surely realise that the world that at one time seemed so safe is actually anything but. Transported through time, Link sees an abrupt version of this: the twisted, corrupted Hyrule of the future is in stark contrast to what has come before. Who amongst us would not, if we could, wish to change things so that the world forever seemed as safe and assured as it did when we were young?

If you have never played Ocarina then you really should. It is the template by which all later Zelda games are judged. It is such an important milestone in  the development of games as a medium that, honestly, it seems a privilege to have been there when it was new. You can compare it to the influence of the Beatles, or the release of Star Wars. It remains in all ways magnificent.

On… Dragon Age Inquisition DLC

Thanks to the recent EA sale on the PlayStation Store, I’ve just about got around to playing through the major bits of DLC for Dragon Age: Inquisition. I’ve been a big fan of Bioware’s stuff ever since the original Baldur’s Gate, and really enjoyed Inquisition. Okay, it suffered from too much filler and a annoying lack of codas to most of the sub-quests (I lost count of the number of times I picked up a seemingly random item only to find that I’d completed a quest I didn’t even know I was doing), but it seemed a great return to form after the somewhat weak Dragon Age II.

In terms of the DLC, aside from all the various equipment packs that cost about £2.50 and give you weapons with +10 damage versus horse armour or whatever, there are three major expansion packs: Jaws of Hakkon, Descent and Trespasser. In the traditional form, I shall take a brief look at each of them in order. Obviously, there are some spoilers here for the main game and all of the DLC, so avert your eyes if you don’t want to read them.

Some professor bloke in Jaws of Hakkon.
Some professor bloke in Jaws of Hakkon.

Of all the three, Jaws of Hakkon feels the most like content that was cut from the main game. It offers a new area – the Frostback Basin – that I was expecting, given the name, to be a slippy-slidey ice world but is actually a jungle-esque place filled with spiders and treehouse complexes that would make the Yolkfolk proud. The Basin contains a number of sub-quests and, yes, more shards to spot and collect. These can either be used in the Solasan temple in the main game or in a mini-version within the Basin itself, which is quite handy but still doesn’t make jumping around after the sodding things any more fun than it was before. The main questline concerns itself with the Avvar, who I seem to remember vaguely as being some barbarian-esque tribal group. A faction of these chaps/chapettes calling themselves the ‘Jaws of Hakkon’ (presumably because it sounds a bit cool) are causing some trouble-and-strife. Alongside this, an academic from the University of Orlais believes he has found the final resting place of the last leader of the Inquistion, Ameridan. As you might expect, before too long the plot-lines converge and you’re kicking some barbarian butt.

This is all quite enjoyable, though I couldn’t never quite escape the impression that it was something originally planned for the main game but then excised for some reason. It’s a shame as well that the motivations of the Jaws of Hakkon aren’t explained fully; there are some lore documents lying around the final dungeon that go some way towards it, but mostly I felt as if I were fighting a faceless enemy. Still, the penultimate boss fight is a good one, requiring you to think much more about location and placement than normal. For my relatively high-level party (I think I was about level 23 when I started it) playing on standard difficulty, it wasn’t too challenging. There were a couple of random encounters with giants and the local wildlife that caused me some strife, but mostly it was straightforward.

For the few pounds I paid for it, I was happy enough with Jaws of Hakkon. It isn’t essential by any means (though you do get a rather nifty unique ability by playing it, which definitely helps in the later DLC) but worthwhile picking up. Perhaps it was also more enjoyable for me because I’d stopped playing the full game around a year earlier, so wasn’t burned out when I cam e to it.

For those of you who’re interested in seeing me finish off the game’s final boss, there’s an utterly unedited video here:

DLC number two is Descent, and is utterly different in form and scope to Jaws of Hakkon. Rather than being presented with a new overland area, you’re sent off to the Deep Roads to investigate some earthquakes because, well, you’re the Inquisition and that’s how you roll. Those of you reasonably well-versed in Dragon Age-lore will know that the Deep Roads are a former underground empire (but not the underground empire) which is now swarming with hordes of Darkspawn and other unsavoury types.

The marketing for Descent didn’t appeal to me: it sounded a bit too much like a dungeon crawler. In reality, whilst this is true to an extent, it offers so much more. This really did feel like a full extension to the main game, providing a brief new base of operations and new expeditions to carry out. The lack of civilization and the relatively emptiness of the maps (once you’ve cleared out the Darkspawn, at least) does make you feel that you’re treading where no-one has been for a very long time. There’s also a fairly massive addition to the lore of Thedas which you hope will be touched upon in future DA games.

An Emissary, not exactly the most lovely-looking of creatures. It must go through nail-files like nobody's business.
An Emissary, not exactly the most lovely-looking of creatures. It must go through nail-files like nobody’s business.

Descent isn’t perfect. Some people will complain about the linearity, though that didn’t bother me. The ending felt a little undercooked, and – similarly to Hakkon – the enemies you encounter are pretty faceless. You start off fighting Darkspawn, and they don’t have any kind of archdemon or broodmother controlling them that you come across. Along the way you do encounter what I think is a new breed of Darkspawn, the Emissary. These seem to have been modelled on the Architect from Dragon Age Origins: Awakening, but they don’t actually provide any dialogue. Just after the mid-way point of the DLC you find yourself under attack by an mysterious group called the Sha-Brytol. As enemies go they’re quite interesting, what with their rat-a-tat-tat bolt attack and earth-shaking. Unfortunately they don’t have a leader, and you never find out an awful lot about them other than some relatively cryptic allusions in cut-scenes. It’s a shame, really, as there was some potential there for interesting antagonists. Perhaps, though, I’m being a bit hard on Descent in this respect: the problem with the anonymous enemies is one that afflicts the whole series. Even the main Inquisition game had issues in this regard, with Corypheus never feeling to me fully fleshed out.

Some special mention must be given to the fight that occurs halfway through Descent which is the toughest I recall encountering in the whole of the game thus far. With only about two supply caches nearby, you face off against a horde of Darkspawn that will keep regenerating until you defeat a certain set number of enemies. I found it a little annoying that the game didn’t make it clear that you had to go to certain areas of the map to find these enemies. As a result, it took me the best part of 75 minutes to get through the whole thing, and a fight against an Emissary Alpha who kept putting up a heavy-duty magic barrier made me have to drop the difficulty down for the first time in the whole campaign. I just couldn’t face dying and having to do the whole thing again. Maybe if I were more savvy about picking out the right places to attack the right enemies it would’ve been quicker, but first time round it was a massive slog. Fun at first, but after three quarters of an hour it just felt like a war of attrition. Still, it’s an interesting change of pace in the game.

Again, for those few of you who are interested, here’s me finally managing to defeat the Emissary Alpha:

Finally, Trespasser. I know I’ve said it already but, please, if you don’t want any spoilers for the main game as well as the DLC please immediately avert your eyes or smear them with jam so you can’t read on.

Some Elven ruins in Trespasser.
Some Elven ruins in Trespasser. They like their trees and green magic stuff.

Unlike the other two expansions, Trespasser only becomes available after the main storyline has been completed. Starting the DLC fast-forwards the timeline by about two years and removes you from Skyhold and any content you haven’t yet completed. As per the strongly-worded warning the game gives you, once you start Trespasser there is no going back. At the start you are taken to the Winter Palace in Orlais, which looks very palace-y but not, it must be said, all that wintery. The palace is playing host to the Exalted Council hosted by Divine Victoria (who I believe is either Cassandra or Leliana, depending on your choices in the main game) who are convening to discuss the future of the Inquisition. Now that the threat of Corypheus and the breaches have subsided, people across southern Thedas are beginning to question why the Inquisition still exists and why they have so many swords and other metal pointy things. I found this element of the story to be quite interesting, because it’s not often in a game that you get to see what happens after the happy ending. It always struck me as a tad odd how the great nation-states of Thedas just seemed to very quickly accept the resurrection and growth of the Inquisition during the main storyline, so it was good to see that, once the dust had settled, people were expressing their displeasure.

It’s not long however before the Council is thrown into disarray by the arrival of a distinctly-dead Qunari. A quick bit of trellis-climbing by the Inquisitor later reveals that the Qunari had arrived in the Winter Palace by means of an eluvian, those Elven magic-transporting-mirror-things seen towards the end of the main game. Without much concern or forward-planning, the Inquisitor dashes through the eluvian and ends up in some mysterious Elven ruins.

Throughout the main beats of the story, it also becomes clear that the Anchor (better known as the green swirly mark thing on the Inquisitor’s hand) is starting to become more troublesome. Again, this is quite neat as the main game never really dealt fully with the question of the long-term effects to the Inquisitor of having a big magical boil in their hand. This bleeds into the gameplay as well, since the increasing instability of the mark coupled with its exposure to ancient Elven magic causes you to gain access to some rather nifty additional abilities and increased focus gain. Part of me suspects that this is to help lower-level players get through some of the battles in the DLC’s campaign. By the time I got to play it at the maximum level 27 it was challenging in places but nothing too harsh, especially in comparison to some of the big battles in Descent. I’m not sure how it scales, but I can imagine if you were a few levels lower it could be quite hard-going.

Of course, the main allure of Trespasser is that it promises to finally bring some closure to the ‘oh-my-word’ rug-pulling teaser at the end of the main game, where it was revealed that Solas was actually Elven trickster god Fen’Harel. The Inquisition remains oblivious to this, and it isn’t until almost the end that it is revealed to them. In honesty, it did strike me as somewhat unbelievable that despite being continually called ‘Agents of Fen’Harel’ but the Qunari, nobody in the Inquisition had made the connection to Solas, particularly given that most of the Elven ruins that are explored contain murals paintings in exactly the same idiom as he decorated Skyhold. It’s a shame that you don’t actually stumble upon Solas himself until the very end, but it does at least make for a rather interesting narrative dichotomy where you as the player know you’re chasing after him for the entire campaign whilst the player characters don’t.

Trespasser is a fitting end for Inquisition, and – probably in response to the furore that exploded around the release of Mass Effect 3 – provides conclusions of sorts for all the games characters. It very much marks the ending of the Inquisitor’s story, at least in terms of adventuring. As a result this truly feels like a ‘proper’ expansion to the game. Whilst it may not be as big as ‘real’ expansion packs (such as Dragon Age Origins Awakening) used to be, it offers sufficient additional story, location and characters to be a thoroughly worthwhile purchase. It also provides hints as to where the series might go next, and a number of the decisions you make in the DLC will presumably have some impact on future plays.

In summary, I’ve been pretty pleased with the DLC for Inquisition all in all. If I had to pick a personal favourite I’d go for Descent, which is odd as that’s the one I thought I’d like the least. Having said that, if you’re only going to buy one of them you probably need to go for Trespasser, since that’s the one that adds the most to the overall narrative and provides the coda to the whole game. A great effort by Bioware all together, though. Hurry up Dragon Age 4…

On… Mario Maker

My recent acquistion of Mario Maker has made me realise two things: firstly, my five-year-old daughter is a sadist; secondly, Nintendo’s genius remains undiminished. A bulwark of the video games industry, Nintendo sometimes seem a little blinkered to what is happening around them. You only need to spend five minutes trying to set up your existing Nintendo Network ID on a different 3DS to realise that. What Mario Maker shows, though, is that the company still knows how to create something that is as accessible and as brilliant as anything Sony or Microsoft, or even Apple for that matter, could come up with.

My experience of level and game creators has not been a great one, I admit, probably due to my incompetence and lack of skill more than anything else. From the 8-bit days with the Shoot-‘Em Up Construction Kit and Graphic Adventure Creator through to the likes of Little Big Planet, I have been consistently unable to come up with anything halfway decent without getting bored or frustrated. Part of the problem is my own lack of foresight or ambition, but also there is a common theme with all the tools I’ve seen that they have a steep learning curve followed by a plateau when you realise the limitations of what’s possible.

Mario looking like he's cosplaying as Fix-It Felix Jr. from Wreck-It Ralph.
Mario looking like he’s cosplaying as Fix-It Felix Jr. from Wreck-It Ralph.

Mario Maker does a few things differently. For starters, it has a wonderfully simple interface that makes the best use of the Wii U’s Gamepad I’ve seen so far (though admittedly that isn’t saying much). My daughter was able to pick up the pad and start creating her own devilishly hard levels within minutes (‘Daddy, try this level with three giant flying Bowsers and a giant chasm before the flag’). From the simple drag-and-drop placement of item onto the square-paper landscape to the way you make enemies bigger by feeding them a super mushroom, it all makes sense. Though I believe it was a bit of a controversial decision, Nintendo’s choice to only provide a handful of items at first and then have others ‘delivered’ to you as the game progresses I found inspired. It gives you enough time to experiment with the basics before you start piling on the ‘extra’ things. The only downside of it is that it can be a little annoying that you can play levels made by others that are utilising tools you haven’t got access to yet.

Of course, Mario Maker is Mario Maker: the tool is designing specifically for creating 2D Mario levels and that’s it. There are some ingenious uses of it out there that have shoehorned RPG style elements and those of others titles into it, though these only really work as one-off showcases: you can’t really stretch it beyond it’s very strict remit. But whilst you might think that’s limiting, it actually makes it a better tool because it’s so focused. If you suffer a nut fixation or have been cross-bred with a squirrel, it’s far better to have a nutcracker than be given a sledgehammer.

One of my daughter's typically evil level designs, complete with bottomless pit (apologies for the rubbish lazy screengrab).
One of my daughter’s typically evil level designs, complete with bottomless pit (apologies for the rubbish lazy screengrab).

There’s nothing really bad I can say about Mario Maker. Yes, okay, it’s a shame that you can’t string a set of levels together into a world, which does make the collection of coins and extra lives seem a little superfluous, but that’s the only really feature I feel is missing. Everything else is just pretty much perfect, from the tactile interface to the way you can swap between designing and playing in an instant, Nintendo have not only managed to nail this but also to put some put some lovely shelving up around it and line it with a collection of worthy titles that wouldn’t look out of place in an Ideal Home showcase.

What the title also makes you appreciate – if you didn’t already – was how much sheer effort and skill goes into creating real Mario games, even those that don’t seem particularly innovative (I’m looking at you, New Super Mario Bros. Wii). The placement of objects, enemies and platforms which at first may seem haphazard in fact is a masterclass in level design; you realise that everything is in its place for a reason and because somebody has calculated through play-testing that it is exactly where it should go. Of course, odds are you won’t have the same level of skill or patience – heaven knows I haven’t – but it does give you a whole new level of appreciation for the Nintendo genius.

Mario Maker, then: brilliant.

On… Why I Got Fed Up With Destiny

There are three questions that I pretend people always ask me:

  1. Is that all your own hair?
  2. What do you have against shoes?
  3. Why did you stop playing Destiny?

And my answers would be: 1) mostly, though some of my chest hair has been donated via a Kickstarter; 2) I think the world would be a simpler place had we all got hobbit-style feet; and 3) well, it’s complicated.

A big silver ball thing. Yesterday.
A big silver ball thing. Yesterday.

As an RPG-fan who has devoted hour upon hour of my presumably-finite life-span to increasing numbers, you would think that Destiny would be a pretty good fit for me. And so did I. I pre-ordered it, played it at launch, got so far into it and then, well, just stopped. Normally I like to at least get to the end of a campaign before sticking the disc back in the case and putting into the dusty archives. I’ve made it through most of the Final Fantasies (except 12 and 13, but I’m getting to them (probably)), completed Baldur’s Gate II about eight times, and even spent at least one donkey’s year doing the same thing again and again in Mad Max (the game). But yet, Destiny just turned me off.

Maybe it was the prospect of that Paul McCartney song that I still haven’t heard, but more likely I think it was the tediously slow nature of the post-level-20 endgame. I’ve got nothing against grinding; I must have walked the equivalent of 100,000 miles around in circles in JRPGs in the hope of triggering a random battle. There always seemed a point to it, though, and an achievable target that wasn’t reliant on luck. You know in Final Fantasy IV, for instance, that if you wander around a field for long enough and fight enough pixellated monsters that you’re going to level up. Eventually you’ll get enough experience points that your stats will increase by some minuscule amount and you’ll become stronger. Destiny never seemed to offer that once you’d hit level 20; the whole ‘light points’ business never made much sense to me and it seemed an overly abstract way of providing progression. Being reliant on receiving engrams which seem to be very sporadic in how they’re dished out seemed to me that it wasn’t an adequate way of rewarding the investment I was putting into the game.

I think as I’ve got older, I’ve become more and more intolerant of things like this, where games don’t respect my time. The Ubisoft habit of filling open worlds with hordes of collectables is bad enough, but at least generally they’re optional. I don’t need to collect all the feathers in Assassin’s Creed II to get better at the game, though I might get some better armour or weaponry, or a little cutscene if I do so. Destiny, by virtue of the fact that it’s an MMO shooter where the main rewards from it are by playing against other people, was essentially forcing me into sinking a lot of time for potentially no reward.

And then there’s the story, or, rather, there isn’t. Bungie obviously made an effort to set up the background lore, what with all that business of humanity’s golden age and the giant pinball in the sky. Unfortunately the game itself contains so little in the way of narrative drive that it may as well dispense altogether with it and just tell you to go somewhere and shoot something. Which wouldn’t actually be that bad since the shooting mechanics are great and, heck, at least it’d be honest.

A lot of comments were made about Peter Dinkledge’s somewhat muted performance as Ghost – from whom most of the plot points are delivered. He’s since been patched out and replaced Ministry of Truth style by Nolan North, but I’ve not played it since so can’t comment on much of an improvement this is. In fairness to Dinkledge, it must be hard to deliver with any conviction lines that wouldn’t seem out of place in a bad episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

“Well, Peter, you’ll be playing some kind of ill-defined floaty robot thing that can somehow resurrect people but yet still takes twenty minutes to hack some computer terminal whilst your Guardian single-handedly faces off waves of identikit bad guys. Oh, and there are wizards on the Moon.”

*Slump*

So… That’s why I stopped playing Destiny. Although I’ll probably still buy the sequel because, well, I have issues.

On… the Infinity Engine and Abstraction

As with a lot of gamers my age, I suffer from the first-world problem of having a massive backlog of things to play through. Every month the list of games I own that I’ve either never played or barely scratched the surface of gets bigger and bigger. As problems go, it’s not a bad one to have and, of course, is all really of my own making.

Anyway, it’s because of this that I’ve only just got around to seriously sitting down and playing Pillars of Eternity. This is a Kickstarter-funded RPG by Obsidian and is a call-back to the old Infinity Engine games of the late ’90s/very early 2000s.

And, well, it’s pretty damn great.

Some pillars.
Some pillars.

Back in my not-so-fevered youth I played all of the mainstream IE games, from the original Baldur’s Gate through to Icewind Dale II, and PoE certainly looks the part. Crucially, despite looking like a game built on the same technology as Baldur’s Gate, it’s been refined with just enough ‘modern’ functionality that it feels like a substantial improvement. Yes, okay, at the end of the day you’re still moving character models around pre-rendered backgrounds in an isometric view, but Obsidian have done a very good job and adding things that were missing before. For instance, you can now zoom in and watch virtual dice roll up close, and there are visual highlights for area-of-effect spells.

In some ways I guess it seems a bit odd that you would really want to create a new game in an engine first created before Tony Blair was prime minister. I can’t really see many people wanting to make games using Doom technology. What it shows is the amount of esteem that those original games are still held in. Part of the reason for this is that they were good games to start off with: well-written, deep and detailed. Another factor, though, is that they were abstract enough that they are still playable today and, in many ways, that abstraction improves the relationship players have with the games. To be honest, Baldur’s Gate looked dated back in 1998. By that point games had moved into the 3D era and, games such as Daggerfall had two years since shown how immersive a first-person RPG could be. Yet there was something about the Infinity Engine and the way it showed you the world that made you feel more involved. The limited viewpoint, combined with the detail that the pre-rendered environments could offer (particularly in comparison to 3D games of the time) worked wonderfully. In the absence of much provided by the game, your brain had to ‘fill in the gaps’, which generally speaking it’s a lot better at doing than people give it credit for. It seems to me the same effect that made 8-bit games so immersive despite the fact that no matter how good the art style, the graphics were inherently poor.

If anything, the creators of PoE have gone further in this abstraction than was ever done with the older games, perhaps with the notable exception of Planescape Torment. Dialogue is interspersed with character descriptions, and numerous in-game events are dealt with via a textual options accompanied by a static line drawing. It sounds lazy, but in actuality – providing you have a decent enough imagination – works fantastically well. Certainly, given the limited budget it’s a lot better than you would have got had they aimed for a more graphic-intensive depiction.

I’m not too far into the game yet, having barely made it through the first few locations, so I don’t want to pass judgement too early. Thus far I am very much enjoying it, although it doesn’t quite seem on a par with how good I remember Baldur’s Gate II being. That may just be rose-tinted nostalgia clouding my opinions, though. I’ll try and continue to add my thoughts here as I progress (assuming I don’t get distracted by anything else).

On… Arkham Knight: A Matter of Family and the Problem With DLC

Potential spoilers for Batman: Arkham Knight – A Matter of Family DLC follow…

I finally got around to playing the A Matter of Family DLC for Arkham Knight yesterday. For those who don’t know, it’s a story-driven add-on for the main game that centres for the first time in the series around Batgirl, specifically the Barbara Gordon version of the character. Set at some point prior to the events of the original Arkham Asylum game, it revolves around Batgirl – assisted mostly ably by Time Drake’s Robin – attempting to rescue her father from the clutches of the Joker.

Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, looking suitably Bat-ish and girl-ish.
Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, looking suitably Bat-ish and girl-ish.

When it came out a few months after the release of the main game, AMoF came in for a fair bit of criticism. In some respects it’s easy to see why: it’s short and, for an add-on that’s meant to be story-focused, doesn’t really have much of one. There’s no real explanation given as to why Joker has kidnapped Commissioner Gordon. There are some mutterings about him trying to provide a ‘Valentine’s Day present’ for Batman by killing Batgirl and Robin, but that would seem to suggest that Joker at least knows who Batgirl is, and I didn’t think that he did. And aside from the fact that it makes for an interesting environment, it’s not clear why Joker felt the best place to keep Gordon is in an abandoned theme park.

Playing as Batgirl was quite interesting, though in truth she’s very similar in style of attack to Batman, albeit slightly more vulnerable and with fewer gadgets. There’s supposed to be more of a focus on hacking, which makes sense given that Barbara eventually goes on to become Oracle. Unfortunately again this seems a little undercooked, as apart from a neat bit involving a fibreglass octopus and a giant skull, all you really do is exchange some passwords and move a couple of cranes.

The DLC is short: I completed my full story playthrough in a little over two hours, and doubtless someone who is less incompetent with a controller than I could do a lot better. I wasn’t that bothered by the length, though. The DLC only costs around £5, which does seem worth it to me. I think the problem a lot of people have with DLC is that they compare it in price to the full game, where invariably it pales. If you’ve paid £40 for a game that’s provided 30 hours of entertainment, another £5 for an additional two hours seems a little mean. Still, you’d pay double that for a DVD film that lasted only 90 minutes. It’s all relative, I guess.

My real issue with AMoF was just that it didn’t do enough to differentiate it from the main game. As already noted, Batgirl plays very similarly to Batman, and the missions involve the same mix of random bad guys to beat up and predator encounters. They’re as fun as they ever are in the Arkham games, but you’ve done it all as Batman before. There are a couple of neat tricks you can pull with hacking devices to ‘frighten’ criminals and make them more vulnerable, and these are good but since they’re used so sparingly in the short campaign they don’t register a lot. It’s a real shame, as it’s obvious a lot of work has gone into the DLC. The theme park setting is neat and very well realised, fitting nicely into the Arkham style (though given how grotesque some of the exhibitions were I doubt Disneyland was ever worried about the competition). Equally, Batgirl’s animation and design are wonderful, really making me hopeful that we might get to see more of her sometime. It’s also neat seeing Harley Quinn in a costume that’s much more reminiscent of her original look in Batman: The Animated Series than the rather hypersexualised outfits she’s had in Arkham Knight and City.

The Joker and Harley Quinn in her 'Animated Series' costume.
The Joker and Harley Quinn in her ‘Animated Series’ costume.

Speaking of which, the final fight between Batgirl and Robin against Harley and the Joker is a lot of fun too. It’s over rather quickly, and won’t be much of a challenge to anybody who has beaten the main game, but it’s emphasis on the ‘tag-team-combat’ that Knight introduced and only used in a handful of occasions makes it great fun.

So… would I recommend this as a purchase? Yes, but only if you’re happy to accept the short length and still consider it worth your money. I don’t regret buying it – I did have fun playing it. However, it could have been so much more.